Geminid meteor shower, one of the year’s best, starts today: How to watch

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A Geminid meteor caught in its final, flaming moments.
NASA

While the Perseids get a lot of attention because they’re active during warm summer nights in the northern hemisphere, it’s the Geminid meteor shower that’s actually the strongest most years, and the Geminids are officially active starting Friday, Dec 4.Even better, this is one of the few major meteor showers that doesn’t demand you wake up well before dawn to catch the best part. According to the American Meteor Society, or AMS, the Geminids provide “good activity prior to midnight as the constellation of Gemini is well placed from 22:00 onward.”

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This simply means that the celestial region the meteors will appear to emanate from is placed high in the sky early in the night. It will be at its highest around 2 a.m. local time, but heading out before midnight still gives you a good chance to see plenty. Plus, those hours are the best time to see bright, slow-moving “Earth grazers” along the horizon.Bottom line: There’s no real bad time to look for Geminids. Also, you don’t need to stare at Gemini to spot Geminids. The meteors can appear just about anywhere in the night sky, but will typically be moving away from Gemini. While AMS says the shower is officially active starting Friday, Dec. 4, its peak  comes on Sunday, Dec. 13 and Monday, Dec. 14, when it might be possible to see up to 150 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.

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Fortunately the moon will be doing its part to provide those conditions by making itself scarce those nights. It will only be the tiniest sliver of a moon if it’s visible at all, with the new moon falling on Dec. 14. The rest is up to local weather and your ability to find a broad, clear view of the night sky away from light pollution. If you can manage that, all you need to do is dress appropriately, lay back, let your eyes adjust, relax and watch. The Geminids can range from faint, fleeting “shooting stars” to bright, intensely colored streaks and maybe even a fireball here and there. You’ll have better odds spotting meteors in the Northern Hemisphere, but the Geminids are also visible south of the equator, just later in the night and in fewer numbers. We get meteor showers when the Earth drifts through clouds of debris, typically left behind by visiting comets. In the case of the Geminids, the debris comes from the so-called “rock comet” 3200 Phaethon, which is thought to be a potentially extinct comet that wanders around the inner solar system.
I’m hoping to put together a Geminid glamour gallery this year. If you’ve got astrophotography chops and manage to catch some great meteor shots, please share them with me on Twitter or Instagram @EricCMack.

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